In 1789 Benjamin Franklin famously wrote ‘In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.’ In 2016 a third certainty can be added, whenever Hawthorn play Geelong it will be a classic contest.
Geelong’s Qualifying Final triumph on Friday was another extraordinary skirmish in a series of titanic battles that have both added to, and were a result of one of the great modern sporting rivalries. Each nail bighting encounter helping to fan the flames of an antagonism born from a shock Grand Final result and ignited by a President’s hubris.
Since Alistair Clarkson’s men surprised the seemingly invincible Cats in the 2008 Grand Final, the two teams have engaged in the most riveting of rivalries. Including the premiership settled on that day, the two have claimed 6 of the 8 AFL Premierships decided and have been separated by less than ten points 11 times in their 19 meetings since.
“What they don’t have, I think, is the quality of some of our players: they don’t have the psychological drive we have. We’ve beaten Geelong when it matters.” With these words Hawthorn President Jeff Kennett made an assessment about as accurate as George Custer’s “There are not enough Indians in the world to defeat the Seventh Cavalry.”
Thankfully for Kennett his misappraisal was far less costly than Custer’s, the results of the next eleven encounters lent his words a mythical air. The ‘Kennett Curse’ was blamed for Hawthorn losing to Geelong 11 times in a row, including 5 games by less than a kick, twice after the siren.
Hawthorn’s famous 2008 Premiership triumph was interpreted at the time as a changing of the guard, seemingly ending Geelong’s reign and commencing a period of dominance for the Hawks. However, in 2013 after two more Geelong Flags and the Cats in control and holding a twenty-point lead over Hawthorn at in the Prelim Final, the ‘Kennett Curse’ seemed to rendered it a false dawn.
It was a lead the Cats held on to tightly with both sides trading goals in the early stages of the last quarter. Bradley Hill goaled in the 14th minute to close the gap but as the game moved into time on, the Hawks still trailed by 11 points. Geelong fought against the Hawk onslaught, desperate to hold on to their hard fought lead, but two goals in two minutes saw Hawthorn wrench ascendancy.
As the Hawks had heartbreakingly found out in the past, a late lead means nothing against Geelong. So it seemed again this night as Travis Varcoe found himself in space with 30 seconds to play. Hawthorn hearts were in their mouths when Varcoe wheeled onto his right and sent the sherrin towards goal.
“I was thinking ‘here we go again’,” said defender Ben Stratton. “Varcoe would kick that nine times out of 10 and these things keep on happening to us against Geelong.
85,569 people at the MCG watched the path of Varcoe’s drop punt and held their breath. ‘Kennett’s Curse’ fading with the kick as it passed to the right of the target. Almost poetically, the new era promised with the Hawks 2008 triumph only came to bear after they next vanquished the Cats.
On Saturday the two sides met once again in a final at the MCG. After a three-peat of premierships, Hawthorn were beginning a finals campaign they hoped would bring them a fourth successive flag and a slice of history. After an aggressive off-season recruitment campaign, which included securing the signature of the game’s most explosive player Patrick Dangerfield, Geelong were hoping to once again be ‘the greatest team of all’.
As we have become accustomed over the best part of a decade, these two sides settled into an aggressive, hard, skilful and tight contest. The two sides struggling to put any space between them and the other with the margin remaining with two goals for the majority of the match.
After three quarters the Cats held a slender two-point lead. Both sides attacked hard early in the last, Cyril Rioli grabbed the lead early only for Cameron Guthrie to steal the advantage back for the Cats. Shaun Burgoyne retook the lead for Hawthorn, the silky Hawthorn veteran again stepping up when the Hawks needed him most. Since 2011 the four-time premiership player has kicked 40% of his goals when the margin has been 10 points or less.
For 14 minutes the two sides attacked each other relentlessly but could not make an impact on the scoreboard. In time on Geelong’s go to man, Captain Joel Selwood, made the play that ultimately turned the match. Selwood gained a contested possession in the centre square before breaking desperate tackles from Luke Bruest and Jack Dunstan before releasing team-mate Harry Taylor. A hurried kick from Taylor found Josh Caddy who snapped truly for a lead that the Cats would not relinquish. Not for a lack of trying though.
With time running out, Stephen Motlop twice tried for impossible goals giving Hawthorn the chance to score from the kick in. The second miss allowing Hawthorn 37 seconds to steal the game at the death. Knowing the situation at hand, Grant Birchall went down the middle finding a waiting Jordan Lewis just inside 50. Lewis not wasting anytime sent a spiral punt inside the centre square where a loose Burgoyne transferred the attack to a flying Taylor Duryea on the wing.
With players from both teams steaming forward, Duryea used the space afforded him to find the waiting Grant Birchall just outside attacking fifty. Birchall in an effort to move the ball inside fifty quickly, was only able to kick into the desperate Corey Enright on the mark.
Both players threw themselves into the quest for the ricochet but Birchall was able to get his hands to it first. With five seconds to play, Birchall threaded the ball through the mayhem to a loose Isaac Smith who claimed the mark and with it an opportunity to kick for victory after the siren.
The valiant Enright, among other Geelong players, slumped to the turf knowing that their fate was now outside their control. Smith appeared confident as he began his approach, before him stood seven desperate Cats on the mark doing what they could to distract the young Hawk.
For the third time since the 2008 Grand Final, Hawthorn and Geelong fans anxiously watched a result of an epic contest depend on the outcome of a kick after the siren. Despite Smith’s confidence, his kick missed to the right and Geelong had won.
Hawthorn now consigned to taking the long route if they are to claim a fourth successive premiership while Geelong, with a week off, can lick their wounds before contesting another Preliminary Final. Will Smith’s miss, like Varcoe’s before it, usher in a changing of the guard in this most extraordinary of rivalries or could we still have another chapter to savour before the Premiership Cup is awarded in 2016?